National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

Review board reports mixed response from dioceses


Members of the board established by the U.S. bishops to investigate the clerical sex abuse crisis portray their 12-member committee as a little engine that can help restore faith in a battered institution. A year and numerous controversies into the assignment, they think they can provoke the transparency necessary to rebuild trust.

But can they? Or is the mountain of institutional intransigence too steep, the roadblocks too many?

Working against the National Review Board is the apparent reluctance of some dioceses to provide information or to carry out promises the bishops made in their June 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth.

As of July 10, the board said in an interim report released July 29, approximately one-third of the nation’s 195 dioceses failed to complete a survey designed to provide a “statistical snapshot” of the “nature and scope” of the crisis. Additional dioceses -- the report does not say how many -- only partially completed the John Jay College of Criminal Justice survey.

The board report cited “initial resistance to participation” as a reason for the delay (NCR, July 4), but said “those barriers have now been largely removed and the John Jay research team is receiving information from cooperating bishops at an increasing rate.”

Results of the John Jay survey will be made public in early 2004.

Meanwhile, an ongoing audit of diocesan compliance with child protection programs has demonstrated both good and bad practices. Since June, approximately 45 dioceses have had compliance with the charter’s provisions audited by an outside firm. Every diocese will be audited by early fall with results made public in December. The review board “is prepared to name those dioceses” found out of compliance with the charter.

The auditors, said review board member Ray Siegfried, “are not choir boys. They will do the job and do it well.” To date, said Siegfried, the auditors have found “some very positive and good examples of compliance -- and there is some of the other kind too.”

Abuse victims and advocates, meanwhile, raised concerns about the audit process, contending that the auditors are relying too heavily on self-reported diocesan data and not on the first-hand accounts of others who might have information to contribute. Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, a victims’ rights organization, met with board members July 29 and was assured that the Office of Child and Youth Protection will formalize a system where such information is provided to the auditors.

Working in the review board’s favor is a seemingly sincere harmony of purpose: “We are united in an unshakeable resolve to help the church mend itself and reassure its members” though “the inevitable obstacles that block one’s way can be formidable to overcome,” the board said in a July 29 interim report on its progress.

The high-powered group -- its members include a retired university president, two sitting state judges, a former White House Chief of Staff, a law school dean and others at the top of their professions -- appears committed. “What began as a volunteer assignment has become an almost full-time endeavor that frequently crowds out other duties from busy schedules,” says the statement, addressed to the “Catholic Faithful of the United States.”

The sum of their yearlong work, members told a July 29 news conference, which coincided with their regularly scheduled monthly meeting, is considerably more than the headlines generated by the June resignation of chairman Frank Keating (who famously compared recalcitrant bishops to members of the Mafia), or the mini-media maelstroms resulting from bishops and abuse victims who publicly question the board’s mandate and methodologies.

The board points to successes. It hired Kathleen McChesney to head the newly formed Office of Child and Youth Protection. McChesney’s deputy, Sheila Horan, was formerly FBI deputy assistant director for counterintelligence. “With their law enforcement backgrounds,” the report said, “they represent a no-nonsense treasure of expertise about investigative procedures, accountability, and compliance.”

McChesney’s office, meanwhile, is overseeing the implementation of ambitious “safe environment” programs underway in each of the country’s 195 dioceses (NCR, April 18).

Sure to provoke additional controversy is yet another report to be released in early 2004, this one presenting the review board’s “consensus view of the causes of the crisis.”

Finally, in September, the board will seek out “secular academic institutions” capable of conducting a multi-year “analytical assessment” of the crisis. Funding for this study is being sought from foundations, and could cost “upwards of $4 million.” This study, said the board, will allow for a “more detailed study into the causes and context, particularly on those issues which require broad-based statistical data and analysis before conclusions can be firmly reached.”

The review board gets its power from two sources: the support of the bishops and its ability to shine a media spotlight on bishops who do not live up to their promises. Both were tested most recently during the Keating debacle, with both the bishops and the board disavowing the former Oklahoma governor.

But what if the board and the bishops divide? Is a train wreck coming?

The board’s ultimate grade, suggested board member Bob Bennett, will depend less on its own efforts than on those who oversee the work. “Unless the bishops of the country are fully committed to this and take our reports and our recommendations and run with them to make the protection of children their first priority, then much of our work will have been wasted.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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